Congolese begin voting on long-time leader's bid to extend rule

2015-10-25 14:05
Denis Sassou Nguesso (File, AFP)

Denis Sassou Nguesso (File, AFP)

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Brazzaville - People in the Republic of Congo began voting in a referendum Sunday on whether long-time President Denis Sassou Nguesso can seek a third term in office that has sparked clashes in the oil-producing country.

Polling booths were due to open at 07:00 for the ballot on whether to amend the constitution to allow Sassou Nguesso, 71, to extend his grip on power that began more than three decades ago.

The small central African country has been rocked by deadly protests in the run-up to the referendum.

On Tuesday, authorities said four people were killed in clashes between opposition demonstrators and security forces in Brazzaville and the economic capital Pointe-Noire.

But opposition leader Paul-Marie Mpouele claimed Friday that at least 20 people had died in the unrest and asked opposition supporters "to reject the referendum" but also to "avoid all violent acts".

Archbishop of Brazzaville Anatole Nilandou has appealed to the various political parties to hold talks on the crisis sparked by Sassou Nguesso's bid to run for another term in 2016.

All traffic except for security forces and those with a special police permit was banned from the roads in Brazzaville Sunday and the capital was quiet at the start of voting.

Voter Brice Mbemba, without revealing whether he had voted "yes" or "no" on amending the constitution, said he had come to "vote for peace in my country".

"We want peace, nothing but peace because we have suffered too much," he said.

'Inclusive dialogue'

One of Africa's longest-serving leaders, Sassou Nguesso, who began his career in the military, took power in 1979 and has been in office ever since, except for a five-year period.

He wants to amend the constitution to change two provisions that disqualify him for running for re-election in 2016.

Under the current charter, the maximum age of presidential candidates is 70 and the maximum number of mandates a person can serve is two.

Sassou Nguesso has already served two consecutive seven-year terms.

The former Marxist soldier was president from 1979 to 1992, when Congo was a one-party state.

He went into opposition in 1992 after losing multi-party elections but returned to power at the end of a brief but bloody civil war in 1997 in which his rebel forces ousted president Pascal Lissouba.

He was elected president in 2002, then again in 2009, when he won nearly 79% of the votes. Half of his 12 rivals boycotted the most recent election.

The European Union stressed Thursday that "freedom of expression and association should be preserved" and that "an inclusive dialogue was the only way to restore a broad consensus" in the country.

The president of former colonial power France, Francois Hollande, Wednesday urged Sassou Nguesso to "calm tensions" while emphasising his right to "consult his people".

Tens of thousands of the president's supporters rallied in Brazzaville on October 10 in favour of the constitutional changes.

The turnout dwarfed an anti-government demonstration late last month, when several thousand people poured onto the capital's streets to protest against the president's plan to cling to power.

They rallied under the cry "Sassoufit", a pun on the French expression "ca suffit", or "that's enough".

Read more on:    denis sassou nguesso  |  congo  |  central africa

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